One Colombian’s view from Minnesota to Gainesville

by Didier Bolanos Gonzalez

Here you will find my personal short journey into activism as a Colombian immigrant in the US.

I remember when I saw George Floyd in Conga Latin Dance Club my last days in Minneapolis before moving to Gainesville, in north Florida. It was probably on a Friday after 10 p.m. and he was the main bouncer at the entrance. It is ironic that he was protecting everyone all night and a couple months later on May 25, 2020, a terrifyingly cruel arrest by the Minneapolis police ended his life.

As an international graduate student I was advised by the University of Minnesota to not participate in protests. That May 2020 while in Gainesville, I decided to support the demonstrations without fear. Injustice was clear to me and I decided to walk with people wearing mainly black and yelling “Black Lives Matter” around gentrified neighborhoods in Gainesville. My thoughts about Mr. Floyd were, “Could I stop his murder if I had been there?” However, it was too late for Mr. Floyd’s life and the Puerto Rican owners of the Conga club who had lost a dear friend.

Bad news did not stop there. A classmate from my MDP master degree, Soren Stevenson, lost his eye in Minneapolis days later in a demonstration. At the hospital, in a Facebook message Soren said to us not to be worried about him. Instead, worry about ending systemic racism in the US. He was right. News media focused purposely on the tip of the iceberg, namely protests that are the expression of last resort to call for actions. As an international student I have been witness to injustice against Americans several times. Now injustice is knocking on my door.

Trump’s policies of denying work permits to immigrants during Covid cost me one year living on my savings. They were policies meant to protect American jobs. However, my job was not taken by an American until now so that I will be able to come back to work at the same position. I don’t have the right to protest about it. Meanwhile, in April 2021 the Colombian finance ministry presented a new tax reform to recover credit scores at the expense of the middle and poor class in Colombia. In this case I have the right to speak up. I decided to connect and organize with Colombians in Gainesville and accompanied hundreds more in the US.

Fortunately, I am not alone in Gainesville. I was able to establish connections after the 2020 US presidential race. While I was waiting for my work permit, I was listening to an NPR radio report that was denouncing that the Colombian government and Russia were publicly endorsing US presidential candidates. During the US presidential race in 2020 Colombian officials were holding public events endorsing Mr. Trump. I was wondering if those officials knew how many migrants were affected by Trump’s policies.

I reached out through social media to find Colombians speaking out against those power abuses. I found them. Now, I know Colombians in Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and Miami. The intended intrusion of democracy by the current Colombian right-wing government demonstrated how far the government can go to reach its goals. As a consequence, progressive Colombians and pro-democratic activists united in the current protests. We are breaking the stereotype of a single conservative pro-republican Colombian community. It is positive progress for a healthy democracy.

Thousands of Colombians have been mobilizing since April 28 locally and internationally. The accumulation of injustice stressors, especially from my country, has pushed me to continue my activism in Gainesville. Among Colombian youth we organized expressions of discontent against my government and denounced police brutality. For example, we commemorate the Colombian victim’s day in Depot Park, we organized a light vigil for the current murders during protest in Colombia at Bo Diddley Plaza, I participated in a virtual University of Florida talk about Colombia, and finally we painted a mural on 34th Street with big S.O.S. letters. Again, protest or any kind of expression is the last resource of a deeper problem: injustice.

One year of intermittent quarantine due to COVID-19 has made us think about what is really valuable in our global society. Colombia endured decades of conflict due to governmental policies, civil war and in impact of international drug trade. Finally there were negotiation to end the civil war, but Colombia has not returned to its more care free days of soccer, big carnivals, and peace. Instead, more than 7 million victims of the Colombian civil war waiting for the implementation of the peace agreements, amid the continuous murdering of social activists. This past June 28 this the third month of mass protest in Colombia. and the focus of the protesters demands has shifted to police brutality. The level of repression has surpassed Human rights violations in Colombia. Even, the government blocked for several weeks an international Human right delegation at the end of May. To keep informed about the current human rights violations by the police, I recommend you to check a detailed report by Human Rights Watch published on June 9 reporting a total of 68 credible death cases since the protests began. <> Colombia has the highest number of human rights defenders killed in Latin America (UN, 2019) and a 42% poverty rate (Forbes, 2021). There are starving households, illegal groups including remnants of active contra paramilitary, communist guerrilla dissidents, and hopeless Colombians youth that don’t trust the government (unemployment rate 14.2% and 49% job informality (Colombian statistics)).

Unfortunately, the peaceful protest of thousands has been interfered by vandalism that has taken advantage of the mobilization to destroy public and provided goods. Violence has escalated dramatically. It includes citizen on citizen violence. 6,402 of dead citizens falsely represented as guerrillas have been exposed. All of those cases were confirmed by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in 2021. This horrid scandal occurred during the presidency of former president Alvaro Uribe and his policy of rewarding military forces for combating guerrillas by number of deaths. This happened at the same time when the US Plan Colombia financed the war on drugs.

Plan Colombia granted 10 billion US dollars to reduce coca crops by half before 2010. Instead, coca crops are flourishing with record cultivated areas and suspicious environment and human rights atrocities caused by the aerial use of Roundup (Glyphosate, a weed killer). Basically the same idea as the “Agent Orange” used in Vietnam, but legally in the forest and mountains of Colombia. A coca crop farmer suggested to the Colombian government that with the same amount of money wasted in the chemical control of coca, they could create a small agribusiness with less money than what they were using to eradicate his coca crop. I don’t know why the government does not find this as a common sense idea.

Today, there are hopes for those victims of current state-sponsored terror as the Colombian government has finally allowed entrance to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to witness and confirm what is happening.

Not all is lost here in the US for us as activists. On May 14 Representative James P. McGovern and 55 US Representatives sent a letter to the US secretary of state suggesting restrictions on US military assistance to Colombia. Unfortunately, none of the representatives are from Florida, the state with the second most Colombians in the US. First steps are on the way here in Florida to dissident from mainstream politics. Recently, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission has publicly called for a stop of human right violations in Colombia with a little impact. The Biden administration asked for $453 million and the new approval by the Subcommittee on Appropriations for Foreign Operations was for $461 million in aid to Colombian police and national army’s counter narcotics budget <>.

If there is any sense of empathy from your part, Colombians will thank you if you could call or write to your representatives in the US legislation and suggest to the current Biden administration to reconsider its geopolitics with the current government of Colombia. Most progressive Colombians are tired of the US supporting some oppressive outdated US-Colombian policies with very poor results.

I will continue organizing activities to create public awareness about what is happening in Colombia. Any of your actions will help us in this journey of activism against injustice.

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